ESPN’s Matt Hasselbeck on Steelers vs. Patriots, Brady vs. Roethlisberger and who the real MVP should be

Yes, it’s a Steeler.

NFL: AFC Championship-Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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Have you heard? The Steelers are hosting the New England Patriots this weekend. It’s kind of a big deal.

Actually, the game is such a big deal that ESPN is sending out its Countdown crew to do their hours-long pregame show from Pittsburgh, and ESPN doesn’t even have the game!

With home field advantage on the line this weekend — not officially, but essentially — ESPN reached out to see if we wanted to talk to anyone before their show hits the PA Turnpike. And so with Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger facing off, again, in a huge game, again, I wanted to talk to one of Countdown’s top quarterback gurus: Matt Hasselbeck.

This dude knows his stuff, having played 18 years in the NFL before retiring in 2015 and landing a gig with the Worldwide Leader. So here are his thoughts on how the Steelers-Pats game will go this weekend, and who he thinks will win NFL MVP if Brady loses again this weekend.

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ESPN's Matt Hasselbeck posing with Randy Moss.

ESPN

The Incline: How big is this game, not just for home field, but just in terms of buzz, importance in the entire AFC playoffs? It’s the Steelers and Patriots again. Your show is coming to Pittsburgh for this, and you don’t even have the game on your network! This is a big deal, isn’t it?

Matt Hasselbeck: It is. It doesn’t matter that we don’t have the game because our show, we really promote all the games regardless of what network they’re on. We don’t discriminate. We don’t care if the game’s on Fox or CBS or NBC, we just love to talk NFL football.

I think that Pittsburgh’s one of the best atmospheres to see a football game, whether you’re inside the stadium or outside the stadium. I remember as a player, you come out of that tunnel and then “whoosh” you see the three rivers. … It’s just an amazing view when you come out of it.

And then, when you’re going to the game and you see all the tailgating and the restaurants, and everyone’s in a jersey, and it’s black and yellow everywhere, it’s just a cool atmosphere.

There’s just some great ‘helmet games’ we like to say: Cowboys versus Raiders, the Giants … you know, ‘helmet games,’ but they’re not great games. This is a great helmet game and a great game.

NFL: AFC Championship-Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

This is the game Mike Tomlin has been talking about since before the Cincinnati Bengals game, which was before the Baltimore Ravens game. You typically don’t get that out of coaches. Usually you get the one game at a time, one practice at a time. The Steelers haven’t shied away from that. They want a shot at the world champs, and right now the Patriots are the world champs.

The winner of this game will be the No. 1 seed. I think that’s part of all the excitement. I think the opportunity to do the show in Pittsburgh, it’s a huge game — kind of has a playoff game feel to it.

NFL: AFC Championship-Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

TI: The Patriots loss to the Dolphins last week didn’t impact the Steelers — a Pats win still gives them the top seed — but it did hurt the Patriots’ chances of getting a bye. Now, if they lose to the Steelers, not only will they not have home field, they could lose a first round bye if Jacksonville wins out. 

Is this actually bad for the Steelers that the Patriots lost last week? Bill Belichick doesn’t lose two games in a row all that often.

MH: Yeah. … I don’t think the Patriots are going to, like, try harder now. They were already going to try as hard as they could. I don’t think that matters.

If anything, if anything, I could see the Steelers being mad that JuJu Smith-Schuster got a game suspension and Gronk got a game suspension, because in no way were those equal offenses, but they got equal punishment.

If I’m [the NFL], it’s either Gronk gets a game and JuJu gets no games or Gronk gets two games and JuJu gets one game. Some version of that. I thought Gronk’s thing was twice as bad. [The Steelers] probably agree with that, and so if Gronk got two games, he’d be missing this game. If you want to find something someone would be upset about, it’d be that, not the fact the Patriots lost to the Dolphins. Because Gronk has really had ridiculous numbers against the Steelers.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers always have a good defense — at least I think so, I know they get ripped sometimes — but I think the Steelers have a really sound, smart, aggressive, play awesome with the lead kind of defense. But in five regular season games, Gronk has, I think, eight touchdowns and in all but one of those game he’s had better than 90 receiving yards. That’s insane. That’s insane against a huge rival.

I think that’s the biggest thing: You’ve got a guy in Rob Gronkowski who is now fresh, healthy, the rest of the team is coming off a short week. Last year Mike Tomlin complained about getting the Patriots on a shorter week in the playoffs. So this is similar to that. It’s on Monday, late on Monday, on the road, in Miami one of their furthest flights and, I guess the good news for the Patriots is Gronk had a bye week. A late season bye week for a guy always fighting injuries.

You know it’s coming. You know the whole deal is Stop Gronk.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

TI: The Steelers defense is dealing with the loss of Ryan Shazier, both physically and emotionally. He wouldn’t have been matched up on Gronkowski the entire game, but just how the defense fills that void, both in coverage and in their pass rush, it has to be difficult.

MH: I think they said, even back in the summer, the Steelers wanted to play more man coverage against the Patriots. And if they watch this film against the Dolphins, that’s what they did — they played a lot of tight man coverage, bump and run and basically they played more physical, and they played better than the Patriots. The Dolphins did.

So the Steelers are saying that’s what they want to do. I think that’d be a huge mistake.

I don’t think the Steelers can match up in man to man. The Steelers are an awesome zone team. I think they’re really good at zone, blitz zone, forms of Cover 2. They call it Tampa 2 but it really started when Tony Dungy was an assistant coach under Chuck Noll. He learned it in Pittsburgh. That’s what they’re great at. That’s what they’ve always been great at. If you get their personnel trying to cover man, I don’t see that being the way to go.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

TI: Watching the Patriots, so much of their success is on Brady. It’s like they have a really good offensive line, Tom Brady and like six guys they picked up in the middle of the season in a trade with the Bengals. Kenny Britt will go from getting cut by the Browns to probably playing in the Super Bowl. So much is on Brady to make plug-and-play offensive players into stars. You lose Wes Welker, and Julian Edelman becomes almost as good. Then you lose him, and Rex Burkhead becomes the second coming of a scat-back type of player.

Then you look on the other side of the field at Ben Roethlisberger, and he’s got the two best skill position players on the planet. Does Brady not get enough credit? Does Ben get too much? Or does Ben not get enough because we’re like, ‘Oh well, look he’s got the best two guys on the planet!’

MH: I think both guys get a lot of credit, and I think they both deserve it.

The Patriots offense is actually pretty good. They didn’t play well at all in Miami, but Brandin Cooks? That was the No. 1 receiver for Drew Brees. Chris Hogan can play, though he’s been hurt. Phillip Dorsett … I played with him in Indy, and the dude can flat-out fly. He’s 4.2 [in the 40 yard dash] fast. He can fly.

Danny Amendola’s not a slouch. The Kenny Britt thing surprised me, but he went to Rutgers, and Belichick loves anyone from Rutgers. It didn’t cost them anything, so they’ll give him a chance to fail.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The offense is good. The defense is a whole lot of guys you never heard of. I think probably the danger for this Patriots team in this matchup is they couldn’t cover or tackle Kenyan Drake on Monday night, so what makes you think they’re going to be able to do either one of those things to Le’Veon Bell?

They couldn’t cover DeVante Parker or Jakeem Grant, so why are they going to be able to cover Antonio Brown?

If I were betting on this game, I’d ask, ‘What gives you confidence that the Patriots are going to win other than the fact it’s Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, and you know they have five Super Bowl rings?’ Nothing. Nothing really.

The only thing you can say is that the Steelers have played to the level of their competition for the last month-plus. Boswell kicks a game winner against the Colts, Boswell kicks a game winner against the Packers, Boswell kicks a game winner against the Bengals. These aren’t playoff teams we’re talking about here. Boswell kicks a game winner against Baltimore: it’s all because of the heroics of Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger late in the game.

Why on earth in the fourth quarter on third and anything would a team say, ‘Eh, let’s just go single coverage on Antonio Brown?’ I guess the answer is that JuJu Smith-Schuster is showing a lot. That guy can play. His name doesn’t start with a B, so he doesn’t get lumped in with all the television graphics, but the dude can play.

I’m just wracking my brain for reasons why someone would single cover for Antonio Brown, and I don’t have an answer.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

TI: With Carson Wentz out for the year and Russell Wilson struggling last week, the MVP is Brady’s to lose. But Brady didn’t play well for him last week either. If Brady doesn’t win this week, he can’t be the favorite for MVP anymore after two straight losses. Who fills that void?

MH: Antonio Brown. It’s Antonio Brown.

Here’s the thing though: The NFL MVP isn’t really the MVP, it’s the Heisman. So you could have one of these really great years like Russell Wilson or like Matthew Stafford has had but your team is losing, you’re not going to win the MVP. You might be the MVP — Russell Wilson means more to his team than any player in the NFL. There’s no one who means more to his team than Russell Wilson — but that’s just not how the NFL MVP works. That’s why it’s like the Heisman.

The Heisman is the best player, but all of a sudden if your team loses two games, well, you can’t win the Heisman. Your team lost two games. It’s silly, but that’s how it is.

And so, I don’t necessarily care about the MVP. I think it’s a silly thing. I remember one year Brett Favre, I think, was winning his third one, and one of the writers wanted to stir it up, and he voted for Barry Sanders, and they were co-MVPs that year. And people were upset that whoever voted for Barry Sanders was making a mockery of what that award really is and what it isn’t.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

My point is, there’s all kinds of reasons why certain guys deserve MVP, and they won’t win because that’s not how people vote for it. And I think that Antonio Brown, what he’s done in the fourth quarter of games in particular? Without him…

And it’s hard to do from a wide receiver position. I mean, you could be killing dudes, but if the quarterback doesn’t decide to go to you or the play caller doesn’t call a play you’re involved in, he can’t do anything about it. But he’s been doing it over and over and over and over, and making it look easy.

And by the way, game time decision. That Cincinnati game, he could hardly run. He went back inside, and I don’t know what kind of magic injection they gave, him but he was amazing.

So he’s the guy who I think if the Steelers are able to win this game, I would imagine he would have to have a huge hand it in, and for me, it’d be hard for me to say Antonio Brown isn’t the first receiver to deserve to be the MVP.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

TI: Tom Brady is like 100 years old and says he’s going to play for a couple more years. But at some point in your life you say you’ve done all you can do in a sport and it’s time to go live your life. Brady hasn’t said that, but Roethlisberger did last year. There are a lot of people who think he’s doing it because he loves people giving him the attention. 

Still, do the Steelers have to go into this stretch run thinking ‘this is our last shot with Roethlisberger’ and after this season it could be who the heck even knows at quarterback?

MH: No. 1, Tom Brady’s playing style is very, very different than Ben Roethlisberger’s playing style. If Brady’s going to get sacked, what does he do? Quickly throw it into the ground and fall to the ground. He preserves his health.

Roethlisberger is completely opposite. That dude, it’s almost like he’s got guys open and he’s like ‘nah, come get me. I want to make two guys miss before I complete a pass.’ And it’s incredibly impressive how he’s done it. And he’s also played with a lot of injuries. I feel like he’s in a walking boot three times a year.

The dude’s body at the end of these seasons, because he’s always in the playoffs it seems, he’s probably like, mentally, emotionally, physically, like ‘I need a breather, man.’ This is a team that’s had a good amount of drama, every year. Mentally, emotionally and physically I think it takes a toll.

Oct 16, 2016; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva (right) helps up Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (left) during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium. The Dolphins won 30-15. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

So, yes, do I think Tom Brady can play until he’s 45, easy? Yes I do.

Do I think Ben Roethlisberger would want to do that? No I don’t. And it’s because of the style of play.

But, never mind that. If I’m the Pittsburgh Steelers, I invest in the quarterback position every year from here on out.

I like the fact that they’ve at least started — I didn’t expect Josh Dobbs to go there, and even Landry, I think it helps that they have time playing with Roethlisberger and learning from him. But yes, they should be drafting quarterbacks, signing quarterbacks, but that doesn’t mean to definitely push Ben out the door. That just means to be around him. Learn the good he brings to the table. Learn the bad.

Not everything’s great. Some of the best things I learned in my career were from Brett Favre — some were great, some were not great. I got to learn from being around him.

Whoever replaces Ben Roethlisberger eventually, it’d be great for that person’s career if he got to spend a year as Ben’s teammate. That may not happen if Ben decides to walk, but investing — instead of drafting another DB because it’s a need, drafting a quarterback — would be a wise decision.